Born in Nagasaki in 1954, the child of an atomic bomb survivor and a marine scientist, Kazuo Ishiguro moved to England when he was five, after his father was offered a research post at the U.K.’s National Institute of Oceanography. There, Ishiguro grew up to become one of the most celebrated British novelists in history, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and a knighthood two years later. All of his seven previous novels have met with critical acclaim, while two—Remains of the Day, published in 1989, and 2005’s Never Let Me Go, both of which saw major film versions—became massive popular successes.
Ishiguro’s fiction, graced by remarkably restrained and nuanced prose even in its most emotionally charged moments, always raises the question of what it means to be human. Issues arise through stories told by narrators who are not so much classically unreliable—that is, deliberately deceptive—as determined to make peace with the past. And that’s true even when that past is plainly horrific: the main characters in Never Let Me Go are clones, created to live their shortened lives as organ providers for “real” humans.
On March 2, Ishiguro will release his eighth novel, Klara and the Sun, set in a world where artificial intelligence is an ever more potent force. Narrator Klara, the kindest character in the book, if not the kindest human, is an AF—a solar-powered AI entity known as an Artificial Friend. She is not from the newest and more physically adept model line, but Klara is equipped with exceptional powers of observation and appeals to both 14-year-old Josie and her driven mother when they visit their local AF store, a smoothed-over slave market. Josie is seriously ill, as was her deceased sister before her. Both girls had been “lifted,” the term for receiving genetic enhancements that carry the possibility of serious health effects. But she needs a caregiver as much as a friend, and her mother may soon want a surrogate daughter. As rich, haunting and provocative as anything Ishiguro has written, Klara marks a return, in its own way, to the near-future dystopian terrain of Never Let Me Go.
Q: This is your first post-Nobel novel. How has winning the prize affected your writing, not so much in content, but in the demands made on you?
A: It was really just a discrete hunk out of my life. I had written about a third of Klara when the Nobel happened. And, I have to tell you, because people don’t quite believe it, [the Nobel] does come completely out of the blue. There’s no warning. You have to cancel everything because immediately there’s quite a lot to do—organize a trip, deal with all these protocols you’ve got to figure out, write a lecture that could be preserved for posterity. And then there’s a kind of less formal aftermath, when various things happen. So, yeah, I stopped writing my novel for about six months I think, and that can be difficult, to go back to something that you just stopped. But in my particular case, with Klara and the Sun, it helped me. I came back to it quite fresh, with a different perspective. That was because some of the things in the book are breaking right now, and became relevant to the novel, like [gene editing] CRISPR developments.
Q: This is a book with a long genesis, is it not? Did it begin as a children’s story during your daughter’s childhood?
A: Not that long a genesis. Around 2014 or so, somebody at my publishing house asked if I was interested in writing for children. I think she meant a YA novel, something like that. But the story that came into my head was one really meant for a small child’s picture book, for a four- or five-year-old, mostly filled with images and a very short story that I thought would be quite poignant. Though the story did have echoes of when my daughter, Naomi, was much younger, probably five or six years old, when we used to make up stories about the sun going down behind our neighbour’s shed. We used to say [as Klara says of a neighbouring barn], if we lift up the door behind their shed, that’s where the sun will be. So I verbally ran my story past my daughter who was then in her twenties. And Naomi—who’s now a novelist but was then working in a bookstore, a very good bookstore, and knew a lot about selling books to children because they had this really good children’s section—looked at me coldly and said there’s no way you can tell that story to children. You’re just going to traumatize them. I thought, ooh, well maybe I can use it for a novel, and that’s kind of where Klara and the Sun came from.
Q: You set your first two novels in Japan, although you never travelled there between the ages of five and 34, and the rest in Britain. Until Klara, which takes place in America. Why there?
A: The setting was to some extent movable, and I did have a discussion with my wife, quite late in the writing process after she’d read the draft, about the possibility of resetting the whole thing in England, what that might do. In the end, it was an emotional thing—I wanted it to be in America, for two reasons. It takes place in a slightly futuristic society, very much a society in flux. And there’s something about America, the fact that it’s such a young society, with a fragility about it, which I think we’ve had demonstrated just in the last few months. Though God knows Europe has had savagery and Holocaust and horrendous things happen. And so, I felt America would be a more suitable place for a society that doesn’t quite know where it’s going to go next, one that’s fracturing in a post-employment world. The other reason was the visual images that I had in my head.
Q: The images?
A: They had been inspired by American paintings. I talked earlier about illustrations in children’s books, but I also had these images of cities with tall skyscrapers with shafts of sunlight coming through them, and also these kind of rural pictures of big wide fields and big sky and the sun going down, and maybe a kind of a grain silo on the horizon and a cabin or something in the distance. I had images from American realist painters in the 1920s and 30s—Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and the like—very much in my head, and their night scenes as well, Hopper-esque diners. All Hopper’s lonely, isolated characters. And when I thought about relocating the whole thing to England, well, the story would move perfectly well—it could just as easily take place in London and then the English countryside. But the images would become a different set of images altogether.
Q: And those images guided your writing? Do you always have a set of images when you start a novel?
A: They are very important to me, especially images from movies. When I have an imaginary world in my head, it’s often helped by images from art and film, actually overwhelming from movies. But this time around I was looking at these realist paintings, first in a gallery, then in books. I thought it would be interesting to create a futuristic world in those kinds of settings. I wanted the sunshine and the huge open fields and sometimes a lonely road.
Q: Which is not all that common in England, unlike here or the U.S. where you can go a very long way without seeing many humans.
A: Oh, I remember hitchhiking across Alberta and British Columbia when I was 19 years old. I was absolutely astonished at the distances. And I couldn’t believe we could just travel and travel and travel and not see anyone. That was a revelation for people who come from crowded countries, as I do, first Japan and then England.
Q: To return to images, most readers will see some relationship between Klara and Never Let Me Go, although not necessarily the same relationship. What is the connection in your mind?
A: For me, Klara is an emotional reply to Never Let Me Go. The last time I re-read it, probably seven or eight years ago, it struck me as a very sad book.
Q: Really? You’re always quoted as saying it was cheerful.
A: [Laughter] Yeah. It is cheerful! Well, in a way. I mean something quite different when I say that. It’s cheerful compared to my earlier books, since it celebrates the good things about human nature. I think the main characters all behave decently, and they do care about each other. It’s about friendship and love—its portrait of human beings is optimistic in that sense, although the backdrop is cruel and bleak. But, having said that, I suppose I did feel the need to go again into not dissimilar territory [but] with a positive attitude. Klara and the Sun is a more hopeful response to Never Let Me Go being maybe a little bit sadder than it needed to be, so maybe it’s a little bit more cheerful.
Q: Clearly, there are varieties of cheerfulness. There’s a theme of privilege versus marginalization that runs through the new novel. Klara is often welcomed, occasionally pampered, and sometimes slapped into place whenever she seems to be crossing a line the hired help should never cross, asserting some kind of equality. At least Josie’s mother does that, saying things to the AF like, “You have no business being curious,” and “You’re just fabric.” Though the ending is actually more cheerful, because it would have to be, than clones dying young from human greed and selfishness.
A: I think that Klara’s is not far from the experience of a lot of human beings. When you’re useful, people welcome you, and when they don’t want you to cross a line, they push you back. Klara’s fate at the end is like a lot of old people—needed once by their children, perhaps by their grandchildren, but there comes a point when they’re not required anymore and are kind of discarded. It’s, for me, a reflection of what happens to people in the human world.
Q: Does anyone in the novel regard Klara as human? Should they?
A: No, I don’t think they do. It’s true the human beings in the novel are so accustomed to relating to other human beings that they find it hard not to project something onto Klara as though she is a human being. For me, the really interesting question is the reverse one. Are human beings actually that special? Do they have something that Klara doesn’t have, or is there actually not that much difference between the machine character and the humans?
Q: Perhaps it comes down to whether Klara is lovable, because I agree with her—by which I mean, with you—that is the test of human uniqueness. What made Josie special, Klara decides, was not what was in Josie, but how people reacted to her, what they had in their hearts about her. So, is Klara lovable?
A: Yes. If the human beings around her have special feelings towards her then there is something unique about her. If she goes away, is there a genuine emotion of missing her and feeling loss? Your question raises another question—is there any actual soul inside Klara?—just like she questions whether human beings have souls inside them. I think Klara looks at human life, the human world, through the lens of loneliness, because she was manufactured for that purpose, and that provides quite a useful lens for me. The loneliness that Klara sees isn’t necessarily the sort we were talking about with Noreena Hertz’s “loneliness economy” and renting friends or buying hugs. There’s some of that. But Klara starts to wonder if there’s something fundamentally lonely about human beings, because each individual is so complex that they are not interchangeable with each other. Does that actually mean, by the same token, that human beings are fundamentally lonely creatures, regardless of everyday companionship?
Q: Are you worried about the future, more worried than you were when you began writing Never Let Me Go two decades ago?
A: I am worried about the future in some respects, and I’m very excited in other respects. I wanted Klara herself to be a positive embodiment of science and technology. She’s not one of these menacing robot figures, she’s not deceptive, she’s not HAL in 2001. A part of me is actually very hopeful and optimistic, both about artificial intelligence and about gene editing. But in the backdrop to the novel I wanted to point to my concerns. The society in which all this takes place I don’t feel is actually dystopian in the way that the world of Never Let Me Go was, because there isn’t that kind of cruel system in place yet. But it’s a society in flux, one that could go either way, and I wanted to convey that sense of possible outcomes—because we’re talking about things that are happening now, to us. When I was writing Never Let Me Go, I felt, ‘Oh, I’m going to borrow a few things, a few tropes, from the world of science fiction.’ When I was writing Klara and the Sun, I was never conscious of doing that. I was just taking things from conversations and science conferences I had been attending.
Q: Good and bad, then?
A: Very exciting, actually, in terms of medicine. CRISPR gene editing could save us from many, many things that now kill us, and it could even help us with COVID sometime in the future, if we can’t defeat it with vaccines. But like all such powerful tools, we have to figure out how we re-organize our societies to accommodate it, because there are very negative things that can come out of it. The next step for gene editing is to apply it to organs within the body and then to the brain. Which will probably leave us looking at questions of inequality and privilege. I can’t see how you would not have gene-editing tools like CRISPR being employed, just as cosmetic surgery is, to enhance people and not just save them from disease. This is not something that I’m being alarmist about. It’s a challenge we have to rise to.